Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Petra, built for the sun gods?

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN
updated 10:25 PM EDT, Sun May 18, 2014
Archaeoastronomers recently measured the celestial alignments of monuments in Petra, Jordan, and found many line up with the setting of the sun during solstices and equinoxes. Archaeoastronomers recently measured the celestial alignments of monuments in Petra, Jordan, and found many line up with the setting of the sun during solstices and equinoxes.
Petra and the solstice
Petra and the solstice
Petra and the solstice
Petra and the solstice
Petra and the solstice
  • A new study claims the ruins at Petra, Jordan were built to align with the sun during the solstices and equinoxes
  • Despite the breadth of the ruins, only 85% have ever been excavated
  • Little is known about the function of many of Petra's structures
  • The study's leader hopes his findings will shed new light on how Petra functioned

(CNN) -- Few ancient civilizations have left an architectural footprint quite as indelible as the Nabateans did in Petra, southern Jordan.

Majestic temples, burial chambers and homes still stand, carved around 2,300 years ago from the rose-hued landscape.

Logic would dictate that the relics strewn throughout the 2.8 million square feet of Petra Archaeological Park would provide historians with a bounty of information about the ancient culture.

In fact, surprisingly little is known about ancient Nabatean life and traditions. An estimated 85% of the area has never been excavated, and there is precious little in the way of written records.

"I don't think we really understand what significance some of these structures truly had," says Megan Perry, an associate professor at East Carolina University's department of anthropology.

Recently, a team of archaeoastronomers sought to gain some insight into the function of these ancient structures by measuring their celestial alignments. Their findings, which were published in the Nexus Network Journal, suggests that the Nabateans purposefully built Petra's most sacred structures to align or light-up during celestial phenomena, including the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes.

Juan Antonio Belmonte, the study's leader at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC), notes that the effect is particularly stunning at Ad Deir, also known as The Monastery -- one of Petra's most visited attractions.

Jordan's historical gem
Bedouins thrive in 'God-like' desert

"The lighting is spectacular; the sun setting through the gate perfectly illuminates the sacred areas of the deep interior," he says.

"Apart from the beauty of the situation itself, the effect -- which would have been observable only a week or so before and after the winter solstice -- also gives you information about the purpose of the building."

Indeed, there's been much debate in the archeology community over the exact function of Ad Deir. Why was it built? Was it a tomb? A temple? Prior to Belmonte's study, there haven't been any clear answers.

"With such an alignment, it's now clear that it was certainly a temple with an astral religious character," says Belmonte.

"This can help us understand the religious beliefs of the Nabateans, and also their way of controlling time. It shows they could monitor the lunar calendar by solar and lunar observation. We're really finding a lot of utility in these kind of measurements," he adds.

Perry, who was not involved in the study, but who co-heads The Petra North Ridge Project, says that while she finds the findings plausible, she's not entirely convinced by the methodology employed.

"I think the idea that the Nabateans could have done this is actually not that surprising; it sort of goes along with other aspects of their religion, and potentially their understanding of place and space," she says.

Perry has spent a lot of time studying the layout of monuments in Petra for clues as to whether the city was laid out organically, or -- as Belmonte suggest -- if it was planned.

"The tombs seem to be based on natural topography. Nothing in terms of their layout suggests a tie to any kind of solar orientation. If there was one, they'd all be facing the same way, but they surround the city and face in an infinite number of directions," she notes.

Belmonte, who measured the alignment of over 30 Nabatean monuments, both in Petra and at other sites throughout Jordan and Israel, says his measurements are too consistent to be a coincidence.

"When you study the alignments, you produce a histogram that has a certain credibility from a statistical point of view. If this is by chance, the probability is very small," he says.

Read: The nomadic cave dwellers of Petra

Read: Ancient ruins on verge of vanishing

Interactive: Do camel bones discredit the bible?

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:46 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Robot dinosaurs, Lego men and Spider-Man all could become Dubai's newest residents.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Not long ago camel milk was an unfancied staple, the preserve of Bedouin herders. Now its becoming a luxury.
updated 10:12 PM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
Managing over 2 million people during the Hajj takes some serious technology.
updated 2:11 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
More needs to be done so women from Saudi Arabia can become world champions in sports.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Is nothing sacred? How tech allows narcissism to run riot.
From the waters of the Persian Gulf a new mega museum is emerging.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Where better to start a record-breaking solar powered flight than the desert?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Ahmed Eldin is the 18-year-old behind the prog-rock band's new album cover. Shine on you crazy diamond.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
The Humans of New York photo project exposes the hopes and fears of ordinary people in Iraq and Jordan.
updated 10:06 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Dubai's appetite for construction continues with multi-billion dollar boost to build the world's largest airport.
updated 11:02 PM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
The UAE is becoming a hub for plastic surgery with more Emiratis going under the knife each year.
updated 7:20 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Meet Erdal Inci, a digital artist from Turkey who is transforming the medium.
updated 9:39 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Iran is pumping billions of dollars into a scheme to save a lake. What's so important about it?